Aeneid Book 5, lines 680 - 699

Fire strikes Aeneas’s fleet

by Virgil

After the passion and drama of the story of Dido in Book 4, Virgil releases the tension somewhat in Book 5, which is mainly take up with funeral games held for the anniversary of the death of Aeneas’s father, Anchises, a year before. Sea and foot races, a boxing match, an archery contest and cavalry manoeuvres are described in a style that fleshes out in further detail how ancient heroes were supposed to look and behave, and includes a good deal of humour. Then, towards the end of the book a number of developments move the plot decisively forward again. This extract describes the first, in which travel-worn Trojan women are deceived by Aeneas’s enemy, Juno, into an attempt to bring their wanderings to a premature end by burning the Trojan ships. In the aftermath, some will remain behind here in Sicily, in a newly-founded town. The youngest, toughest, bravest and most determined of the Trojans will continue the quest for Italy as a picked, battle-ready band.

See the blog post with an illustration from Claude Lorrain here.

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non idcirco flamma atque incendia viris
indomitas posuere; udo sub robore vivit
stuppa vomens tardum fumum, lentusque carinas
est vapor et toto descendit corpore pestis,
nec vires heroum infusaque flumina prosunt.
tum pius Aeneas umeris abscindere vestem
auxilioque vocare deos et tendere palmas:
‘Iuppiter omnipotens, si nondum exosus ad unum
Troianos, si quid pietas antiqua labores
respicit humanos, da flammam evadere classi
nunc, pater, et tenuis Teucrum res eripe leto.
vel tu, quod superest, infesto fulmine morti,
si mereor, demitte tuaque hic obrue dextra.’
vix haec ediderat cum effusis imbribus atra
tempestas sine more furit tonitruque tremescunt
ardua terrarum et campi; ruit aethere toto
turbidus imber aqua densisque nigerrimus Austris,
implenturque super puppes, semusta madescunt
robora, restinctus donec vapor omnis et omnes
quattuor amissis servatae a peste carinae.

Not for that did the fire and blaze reduce
their mighty strength; under the wet timber the tow
is alight, belching heavy smoke, the slow heat eats
the ships and the plague reaches down all their frame,
the heroes’ strength and the water they pour do no good.
Then loyal Aeneas tore the clothes from his shoulders,
called the gods to aid, stretched out his hands:
“Almighty Jove, if Trojans are not yet despised to the last
man, if ancient loyalty has some regard still for the labour
of men, now, Father, grant that the fleet escapes the fire
and snatch the slender fortunes of the Trojans from ruin.
Or, if I so deserve, bring what remains down to death with
your deadly bolt and crush it with your own right hand!”
Hardly had he spoken, when on the instant a black storm,
rages, spouting rain, steeps and fields shake with thunder;
over the whole sky the wild tempest rages in flood, black
with intense southerlies, and the vessels are filled
to overflowing, the half-burnt timber is waterlogged,
until all heat is quenched and all the ships, except four,
are saved from the scourge.